Lucy Tosch has returned to Northwestern after a year away, a break to recover from the sudden death of her beloved father, when she meets the magnetic and charming Owen Ota, a Japanese student with whom she falls deeply in love, her first real passion. Although Owen is demonstrably affectionate, he avoids intimacy, and after only two months at the university, he flies home.
Entranced by her lost love, Lucy alters her academic path to include a minor in Japanese studies, and as she covers education at the Chicago Sun-Times, she applies for countless jobs in Japan, finally landing one at Okinawa Week, where Owen’s brother, Hisashi, is the sole photographer. She’s sure working with him will provide a path back to Owen and renewing their relationship.
However, Okinawa is nothing like the Japan she expected – it’s hot, humid, crowded, noisy, and filled with people who are openly hostile to Americans. She and her hotel driver are caught in a protest on the way to her first day at the paper, and she realizes that perhaps she should just quietly resign and go home.
“I was miserable and scared and overwhelmed, but I wasn’t a quitter and after all, I was in the country I’d longed for.”
Nor is Hisashi a romantic prospect. After their first sake-soaked dinner, he asks her:
“Would you date a Japanese man?”
“I already have dated a Japanese man.”
Hisashi realizes Lucy is referring to Owen, and he graciously accepts that their relationship will stay firmly in the friend zone. He becomes her travel partner, ally, and on the few occasions she needs a defender, Hisashi is there — and later, his parents, who are fond of Lucy and welcome her to their home with genuine warmth.
Although she decides to stay and honor her commitment to Okinawa, she has a hard time adjusting to what an American calls “Divorce Rock” and spends her first weeks in a depressed, alcohol-infused haze, listening to Leonard Cohen and wondering how she ended upon the other side of the world. Her mother hen and coworker, Amista, repeatedly reminds her about “spouting off,” her American habit of expressing her thoughts automatically, and again Lucy wonders how she’ll adjust to this strange island.
But adjust she does. She reacts calmly when an interview subject expresses his deep hatred of Americans, including her, and she manages to keep her cool when a stranger is arrested for using a camera strapped to his shoe to film upskirt footage as she’s walking to a restaurant. However, when she “spouts off” in court, an observer screams that ultimate insult: “Gaijin!”
Sarah Sleeper has written a wondrous tale of a woman just starting to emerge from her cocoon and spreading her wings halfway across the world. As she grows accustomed to life in Okinawa and travels the country with Hisashi — especially when they visit Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest, which has touched both of them — she broadens her views of the world, of life and death, the meaning of family, coming to terms with one’s identity, finding your true cause, and listening for her father’s encouraging whispers in the winds. Initially a broken young woman grieving her father’s death, her mother’s withdrawal, and the sudden departure of the man she loves, she summons the courage to face her fears, defying all sensible advice, and embracing the truth when it comes her way. In these revelatory moments, Lucy finds herself not on Divorce Rock, but the beautiful subtropical island where she creates a family of her own, filled with friends who love her, and devotes herself to a cause that strikes deep in her heart. Her story is a tale of bravery, recovery, renewal, and life, and readers are privileged to travel alongside her.